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Ketchikan artist's work is all boxed up

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Posted: Saturday, September 15, 2012 12:35 pm | Updated: 11:23 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

KETCHIKAN, Alaska - Peter Carlson has spent most of his adult life searching for what he wanted to say, and how he wanted to say it.

The 1982 Ketchikan High School graduate has communicated through his paintings, sculptures, gaming art, writing, theater, comic book art and stories, videogame design, and game storyboards.

After high school, he attended Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., then worked as a longshoreman in Seattle, learned to bend glass for neon signs, and earned a bachelor's degree in creative writing from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

"The whole time, I was looking for what to use to say what it was I had to say," he said.

Carlson's solo exhibit, "Plastic Boxes: scenes from a little world," opened Sept. 7 at the Main Street gallery.

He created 100 sculptural dioramas sealed in clear, 4-by-5-inch plastic boxes. He said each was akin to a "hermetically sealed collage," each with a little story inside told with a diorama, with small figures and props.

He said his aim is to "begin to suggest a story" with his artwork to viewers who will take time to look and make an investment in thinking about a piece.

"I try not to spell things out too much," he said, adding he aims to prompt people to "stop and listen" to what he has to say.

Around 1996, he began oil painting when he took an extension class at the University of California, Berkeley.

He began to paint smaller paintings in more volume. He moved to Portugal for two years, and showed those paintings there and sold them consistently enough to live on.

He also lived in Milwaukee for four years, and attended a graduate art program at the University of Wisconsin for a year. He also lived in Philadelphia for a few years, to get a feel for the East Coast art scene.

He said he sold small paintings on the streets of New York City for awhile, and recalled nearby art vendors warning him that he needed to make a choice. "You can kiss the idea of ever having a New York gallery show goodbye" after selling his artwork on the streets.

That was when he said he realized, "Who cares?"

He began to feel more determined to find a new audience outside of the traditional gallery system.

Carlson, who has settled on Orcas Island in northwestern Washington, was living in Chicago recently when he began to explore that idea.

"Is it OK to let the work itself change?" He said he considered many ways to make art that would communicate his ideas outside of the confines of traditional use of materials, or display of the works.

This past summer, Carlson said he sold his paintings from a booth at an Orcas Island farmers' market.

"An important part of being more comfortable with the idea of reinventing the gallery space for myself is that you're going to have to pay for it," he said. Investing in the tables, chairs, tent and other items to create his own space was one price to pay for his own space, but "you can trust the work will pay for itself."

He said that in Milwaukee, he worked in restaurants and bars to supplement his art income, and had many friends who were supportive of his work, but couldn't afford typical gallery prices for large paintings. He got the idea then for his show "50-50."

He made 50 small paintings and sold them for $50 each. The show sold out at the opening, and when he found out there would be a second opening two weeks later, he painted 50 more. All but one of them sold the second opening night.

Another art-form Carlson said he has enjoyed, related to the diorama-type works in his Main Street gallery show, is 3-D terrain for people who participate in miniatures gaming.

In those games, Carlson said figures of people or creatures are moved around on ping-pong-table sized gaming boards with spaceships, derelict buildings, old mines and other objects related to the type of game played.

Gamers usually are male, the older ones preferring replaying historical battles, and the younger gamers preferring science fiction or fantasy dramas.

His interest in the miniatures for games started in Ketchikan.

He grew up in Herring Cove when there was not much ready-made entertainment. He and his four siblings played board games, make-believe games, and other imagination-fueled activities. His father, Gary Carlson, was a Ketchikan physician and his mother, Ann Carlson, was an English as a Second Language teacher. She also is a fiber artist who Carlson said currently is working on a piece for Ketchikan's new public library.

Peter Carlson's idea of "reinventing the gallery space" has affected his Main Street Gallery show. He scavenged 25 refrigerator doors from the landfill. With a borrowed truck, he hauled them to the gallery, installed them there, and attached his 100 boxes to the doors.

He said he got the idea of putting the magnet boxes on refrigerator doors fr om his mother, Ann Carlson, who has a "love of sticking things to the refrigerator."

"The refrigerator is central to life with a lot of kids," he said. When he made his first boxes, he attached magnets and it just seemed natural to stick them to his refrigerator door.

His mother also was the impetus behind his show in Ketchikan. When he balked at shipping prices for mailing paintings from Washington, she suggested he find work that could be shipped more easily.

He said when he creates artwork, he doesn't want to over-explain it. He wants to suggest a narrative to people who can absorb it and pick up the storyline "on their own terms," in the tradition of American folk and country singers, or visual artists.

He said he aims to say, with his works: "This is my experience, and does it resonate with you?"

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